Star power

Canadian retailer Fraser Ross rocks Hollywood.

It's another bright, sunny afternoon in La-La Land. South Robertson Boulevard near Beverly Hills is filled with paparazzi and tourists, cameras at the ready, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the Hollywood starlets who keep the gossip mags in business. Who knows? Paris Hilton could be on the patio of the Ivy, pecking at one of its made-to-order caesar salads–perhaps with her teacup chihuahua, Tinkerbell, in tow, but probably not Simple Life buddy Nicole Richie, from whom, the tabloids tell us, she is now estranged. An even better bet might be Kitson boutique, a few doors down, where Paris or Nicole regularly emerge–separately, of course–laden with shopping bags. Other Kitson denizens include teen actress Lindsay Lohan; Teri Hatcher, Nicollette Sheridan and Eva Longoria from ABC's Desperate Housewives; and Mischa Barton from the hit series The OC.

If stargazers do manage to snap a celebrity during a Kitson stakeout, they may very well want to thank Toronto native Fraser Ross. Since the 41-year-old retailer opened the boutique five years ago, it has helped turned South Robertson into a star magnet. Ross, who owned the über-trendy Ice boutique in Toronto until it closed last September, says Kitson's arrival in 2000 breathed life into a shopping district that was not yet a go-to place for the Hollywood jet set. “People come to us now expecting us to have the hottest new things,” he says over lunch at Chaya Brasserie, another “it” restaurant for film and TV types, just around the corner from his store. “See this,” he says, picking up the rather ordinary white plate from the table. “If I sold it, it would be trendy just because it's from Kitson. You're either a leader or a follower when it comes to setting style. I guess I'm a leader.”

Ross's breathless description of Kitson's success and influence may smack of hyperbole, but the boutique has developed a following among celebrities and, perhaps more importantly, the fans who idolize them and want to emulate their fashion sense, whether it's buying True Religion Woodstock jeans at US$360 or a high-end Cake cashmere sweater for US$895. While a name like Paris Hilton unloading thousands of dollars in a moment of impulse shopping is obviously good for business, it's the tourists, fashionistas and celebrity watchers who provide the backbone for Ross's US$14-million-a-year store empire. His store averages about 360 sales a day, grossing between US$30,000 and US$50,0000, in a neighbourhood where monthly rent for retailers is US$50,000 to US$75,000. Then there is a booming Internet business launched last August––that's expected to pull in more than US$4 million in its first year.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Kitson was packed. And although Paris or Nicole was nowhere to be seen, Merv Griffin–the 79-year-old former talk-show host and entrepreneur who created Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy–was dutifully waiting in line to pay for a few gifts he was picking up for his granddaughter. Still, it was a relatively slow day. “Come back on Saturday,” says Ross. “People often have to wait outside because it's too crowded.”

Sure enough, a couple of days later, a small group of would-be customers wait outside as others exit the jammed boutique. And while no celebrities are spotted, the store filled with tourists looking for a little Hollywood buzz, and teens insisting their parents unleash their credit cards. “I want the hottest things,” says Las Vegas resident Victor Perez, 25, lining up to spend hundreds of dollars on a few hoodies. He confesses he has already spent thousands on Kitson merchandise since it went online.

Kitson's popularity among both superstars and those simply famous for being famous has allowed it to become an arbiter of Hollywood-inspired style. See Lindsay Lohan wearing a white crystal-studded leather belt in People magazine? She picked it up at Kitson, for US$250, not long after Ross found a “hippie” from Venice Beach selling the unusual items. Remember those leather initial purses and wallets that were so gotta-have a couple of years ago? That trend started after Halle Berry was photographed toting one of the handbags . (Ross says he told the Oscar-winning actress while at a party for the 2005 Golden Globes that he refers to last year's store expansion–to 5,000 from 2,500 square feet–as the Halle Berry Wing, because the success of those initial purses helped pay for it.) The bulky Ugg sheepskin boots that have been such a fad? Yup, for good or bad, Ross was one of the first to turn North American stylemakers on to them. He also designed a popular line of terry-cloth purses, wallets and makeup bags with bits of L.A.-centred humour, such as “I Love Botox” or “I Love Plastic Surgery,” stitched onto them.

Ross–a shirt, pants and sneakers sort of guy–also put together a popular Betty and Veronica line of casual clothes based on the Archie comic books, a deal cooked up with Miramax to promote an upcoming film. He's done the same with Warner Bros. in conjunction with the July release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which stars Johnny Depp.

Ross is careful to ensure Kitson is an eclectic mix of the fabulous and expensive, the whimsical and accessible. Sure, he sells brightly coloured BE&D studded handbags for between US$595 and US$1,195. But they're alongside US$28 “Kitson is for Lovers” T-shirts for those who want a piece of celebrity at a fraction of the cost.

The timing couldn't be better. A recent study by global market research firm Synovate found there's a whole generation of “gold-collar” youth emerging–basically working-class youngsters willing to spend far more than what their incomes would dictate on aspirational purchases. They take their cues from Hollywood. “We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture,” says Ian Pierpoint, the Vancouver-based senior vice-president of Synovate's youth division, who oversaw the research. There are many young people who will quite gladly spend a hefty chunk of their monthly salary on a bag, he says, either by saving or going into debt to do it. And it's retailers like Kitson that feed that desire.

Certainly Los Angeles provides a better canvas for Ross's brand of merchandising than Canada. While Ice, located just across from the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto's tony Yorkville neighbourhood, enjoyed a reputation as the place in that city to get the hottest clothing, accessories and beauty products for 15 years, Ross says he eventually tired of both Canada's climate and its subdued, unexciting retail environment. “It's hard to sell stuff in the depths of winter,” he explains, adding that it's much easier in L.A., where you can flog fun sunny-weather clothes and accessories year-round. Moving to the West Coast put Ross closer to celebrities; but it also plunked him in the midst of shoppers who generally don't blink at the high price of being fashion-forward.

Ross says Americans are generally much more willing to pay more than Canadians to be ahead of a trend. If anything, he adds, Kitson's clients are actually “turned off” by sales, because they imply an item is no longer cool. Ross never marks down in-store merchandise. “Look at those stores,” he says, standing outside his shop, pointing to neighbouring retailers. “There's no one in them. There's no buzz. And you know why? There are sale signs in their windows.” What does Ross do with items he no longer wants to sell, either to keep his inventory fresh or because a once-hot L.A. fashion trend is starting to become yesterday's bagels? He ships them off to Toronto, where they're unloaded at liquidation sales a few times a year.

The real secret to the success of Kitson (which, by the way, is Ross's middle name) is the calculated strategy the Canadian employs to lure Hollywood's A-listers to his shop–or at least get them to sport items from his quirky inventory (purchased by their assistants or stylists). For starters, says Ross, “you have to take care of the gatekeepers” that surround stars like Britney or J. Lo. These hangers-on are the people who have influence over the stars, help them figure out what to wear, and can be the key to getting them to come to the store in the flesh. “So you've got to treat them nice.”

But while Ross says he will help celebrities or their stylists make shopping decisions–like ensuring two stars don't wear the same Kitson outfit to a high-profile event, or special ordering a size 11 shoe for a certain female personality he doesn't want to out as a Bigfoot–he won't send an item to a star as a gift with the hope they'll wear it. Sure, on occasion, a designer who supplies Kitson might send a sample to a celebrity, using Ross as an intermediary. “But I'm personally not giving stuff out of my own inventory to someone who is making more money than me,” he says. Still, Ross is very conscious about maintaining a profile with the entertainment elite, and, to that end, he's opened Kitson boutiques at such events as the Sundance Film Festival.

Another strategy Ross employs is developing a symbiotic relationship with photographers and editors who need grist for the celebrity publishing mill. “Here is someone who gets it,” says Jill Ishkanian, the West Coast news editor for Us Weekly, who has developed a friendship and working relationship with Ross that has helped her fill the magazine with glam shots. While Ross won't say specifically whether he or his staff tip off photographers about when a specific celebrity may be making a visit, he admits he makes it clear that Kitson is a good bet for tracking down Hollywood types. He also organizes celebrity-laden promotional parties, including a recent one to hype the Paris Hilton horror flick House of Wax. (The window display said, “See Paris Die!”)

It's a delicate relationship to manage, Ross acknowledges, given some celebrities might not appreciate being caught in their more mundane moments of recreational shopping. On the other hand, whether their career is on the rise or winding down, stars know it's important to be seen. And being spotted at the boutique represents “soft press,” says Ishkanian. “You're likely not going to get caught stumbling drunk out of the store.”

The celebrity factor cannot be underestimated in Kitson's success. But Ross is also careful to get as much exclusivity as he can on a product–or to get it first. And he doesn't even really mind when the expensive goods sold in his store are eventually copied by mass merchants. By the time they are, Ross has moved on to other trends. Retailers like Wal-Mart, he says, “should be thankful” he's shopping the globe looking for items that will set off a fad. Executives from larger retailers do show up in his shop looking for a glimpse at the fashion future. “Sometimes I wonder if they're going to start up a PowerPoint presentation in the middle of the store,” Ross says.

Ross acknowledges he will soon have to make some hard decisions about how to grow his business. He could certainly expand beyond his one store, but given his website has been working so well, he doesn't really know if he needs to. A physical expansion, meanwhile, would require a huge capital infusion. One strategy would be to sell out or partner up with a much larger retailer or investors. Ross already has a deal to set up a boutique at the Isetan department store in Tokyo, where the Kitson name is well known.

Ross says he is now shopping Kitson, and figures he can sell half the business for US$30 million and still keep a hand in it. He doesn't want to abandon his brand, but such an arrangement would leave more time to concentrate on what he does best: selling his fashion dream to celebrities–and the fans who follow them.